Must say I’m a big, big fan of the Corolla. Once you’ve sampled its 125 bhp delights, most other cars in India seem tame in comparison. The Corolla wants you to get involved, go fast and enjoy your driving. The gearbox is slick – shift-quality is second only to the new Honda City’s – the clutch feels light and though the Corolla’s sharp, edgy handling is not to everyone’s taste, I just love it. If there was one car in India which I could buy and have it hopped up, the Corolla would be it. High-lift cams, free-flow exhaust, twin turbos, nitrous oxide, 19-inch alloys, a pair of Recaros and... er, sorry, got carried away there.
From dreams, back to reality. And the reality is, Hyundai have launched the Elantra 1.8 and a match-up was inevitable. However, given the performance intent of both these cars, we decided to do a full-blown Performance Evaluation Track (PET) test around a short but demanding circuit. Before I’d actually driven the Elantra 1.8,I was mildly dismissive of the Korean car. It may be equally powerful (125 bhp), but it was still going to be very difficult for the Elantra to beat the Japanese rice-rocket. Or at least so I thought before I’d switched on the Elantra’s 1795cc, 16-valve, DOHC inline-four. But the unassuming Hyundai had a shock in store for me. As soon as I turned the ignition key and revved the motor a bit, I knew this wasn’t going to be a pushover. Blip the accelerator pedal and the needle on the rev-counter shoots up instantly, while the engine makes some angry sounding noises in accompaniment. ‘Surely, the Corolla has a fight on its hands,’ I thought.
The Motoring team was up bright and early the next day and that’s a bigger feat than it sounds. As we started the work of marking out our PET circuit (at our new, top-secret testing location just outside Mumbai), Srini drove up in the test Corolla, which he had collected the night before. And there we had a small surprise – Toyota had not been able to give us a manual-shift Corolla and we would have to make do with an automatic. ‘Ah, well, no worries,’ we told each other, ‘The Corolla should still be able to pull through on the strength of its brilliant engine alone.’ Hmm...
Coming back to our PET circuit (see diagram), it looks simple, but was designed to thoroughly test the cars’ acceleration, braking and handling abilities. The PET is not a race between drivers – it’s just meant to reveal a car’s strengths and weaknesses in a controlled environment. One familiarisation lap and one timed lap for each person and the man (or woman – Shweta Jain from The Strategist was also pitting her skills against us) who emerges fastest, gets a raise. Er... okay, let’s not discuss the raise just yet and let’s get on with the PETing.
The Elantra first, and first to get off the line was our intern, Joshua Crasto. The man accelerated away without stalling the car (well done, dude!), executed a perfect lane-change manoeuvre, braked hard, took the first U-turn and then... almost lost the plot while going through the slalom section. Whether it was Joshua himself, or the Elantra’s 195/60 Kumho KH18 rubber, we didn’t know, but the young Mr Crasto went completely sideways and mowed through a couple of cones before regaining composure. To his credit though, he went on to post a time of 54.39 seconds – a scant 1.43 seconds off my time and only 1.77 seconds off Shumi, who set the fastest time of the day in the Elantra. Bravo!
After driving the PET circuit, my take on the Elantra was that the chassis/suspension combination is actually not bad at all, but the Kumho rubber is a big letdown. Given the inadequate tyres, the car starts sliding around too early and if you press on, things snap out of shape. At a steady 50 kph through the slalom section, the Elantra would begin to lose it by the third cone and unless you backed off, would go into a tailspin. Bijoy opined that ‘as a package, the car feels dated and old. It doesn’t feel sporty.’ Like most other cars in this segment (the Octavia being a notable exception here), the Elantra’s steering is a bit numb, with little in the way of ‘feel’ or feedback. It’s way better than, say, an Accent’s steering, but still leaves something to be desired. I, for one, wasn’t tackling the lane change manoeuvre very hard simply because the steering wouldn’t tell me enough about what’s happening with the front wheels. Param didn’t like the gearshift and also said he would’ve preferred a tighter, tauter suspension setup. We also liked the Elantra’s free-revving engine. When it comes to power delivery, it’s not quite in the Corolla’s league, but isn’t miles off either. The fact that we pitched an automatic Corolla (which certainly isn’t as quick as its manual sibling) against the Elantra notwithstanding, the latter did post the fastest time of the day, which has got to be worth something. The Elantra’s box of goodies – ABS, BAS, EBD and
TCS – really do work. While braking hard before the first U-turn, the car felt calm and didn’t lock up its wheels while coming to a halt. Likewise, in the ‘skidpad’ section of the PET circuit, one could feel the Hyundai’s TCS system trying to do its best to contain the car’s inherent understeer. Most testers did, however, said they preferred the Corolla’s gearshift, which felt slicker.
Speaking of the Corolla, I can live without traction-control or brake-assist, but no anti-lock brakes on a car that can hit 200 kph in a straight line? During hard braking, the Corolla’s brakes felt tack-sharp (more so than the Elantra’s anchors) but tended to unsettle the car a bit. The stiffly sprung Jap also dealt with the slalom section better than its more relaxed Korean counterpart, but lost time on the skidpad, where, without the benefit of traction-control, the inner front wheel simply spun the Corolla’s power away in scads of smoke. Very dramatic to look at, but doesn’t do much for handling prowess.
Time to PET the Japanese car, then. This time around, Bijoy decreed that Joshua be put on hold until everyone had had their turn, so it was Ms Jain spinning the wheels off the line first. Arms twirling furiously and face, a mask of intense concentration, Shweta gave it her best shot and posted a time of 59.42 seconds. She had done 56.52 in the Elantra. Had Shweta been carried away in her enthusiasm or was the Corolla’s automatic transmission really sapping up so much power? Up next was the usually calm, collected Param. And in the Corolla, he was 1.38 seconds off his Elantra time. Shumi fared worse, what with his time being about 3 seconds off what he had posted in the Elantra. After his familiarisation lap in the Corolla, Srini said that the Japanese car felt twitchier and less planted than the Elantra, but on his flying lap, he actually posted a 56.75 – almost 2 seconds better than what he had been able to manage in the Elantra.
All along, I’d been saying that the Corolla would post the fastest time of the day, but the best I could do was a 53.66 – which turned out to be the fastest Corolla time of the day, but well off the 52.96 which I did in the Elantra. Getting off the start-finish line, the Corolla felt sharp and nimble through the lane change but since it’s not fitted with ABS, locked its wheels before coming to a smoking halt before the first U-turn. Through the slalom, the Corolla retained its composure better than the Elantra. Stiffer suspension settings might have had something to do with it, but I suspect the car’s Bridgestone Potenzas also made a significant contribution. The steering was numb as ever and I wished Toyota engineers had factored in some more ‘feel’ into the system. Then, around the skidpad section, I missed the Hyundai’s traction-control. The Elantra had been able to tackle the skidpad at full tilt, while the Corolla required me to back off the throttle and drop a lot of speed. Shumi had tried to keep the throttle pinned in this section, but the Corolla only spun its power away, engine screaming and car going nowhere. And yes, the 4-speed automatic transmission does sap power. It’s perfectly okay for city commuting, but around the PET track, a manual would have been significantly better. On the engine front, everyone was of the firm opinion that the Corolla’s unit was, clearly, a few notches above the other car. Though both cars claim 125 bhp, the Elantra’s engine feels like it’s some 10-15 bhp down on the Corolla’s mill. That said, the Hyundai actually surprised me with its smooth, seamless power delivery. It isn’t as dramatic as the Corolla’s, but I found little to complain about. In fact, when I first drove the Elantra 1.8 from office to home, I had a great time and enjoyed myself thoroughly. The Korean car rolls and wallows more than the stiffly sprung Jap, but there’s a trade-off in ride quality – the Elantra certainly rides better than the Corolla. The one area (not relevant to this PET, but I’ll mention it anyway) where the Elantra is significantly lagging behind, is interiors. I said this last month, when we compared the Elantra CRDi to an Octavia TDI, and I’ll say it again – the instrument console looks quite dated, usage of red, blue and green lights is visually jarring and the rear seats aren’t very comfortable either.
Let’s sum this one up. The Corolla lost the PET to the Elantra, with the Korean car posting the fastest time of the day. Most of us reckon that a manual Corolla could well have turned the tables on the Hyundai, but that’s just conjecture. The stopwatch doesn’t lie and hats off to Hyundai for whupping Toyota in the PET. The Elantra’s also absolutely loaded with kit and makes the Toyota look rather poverty-spec in comparison. What’s with Toyota? Sure, their engineering brilliance is noteworthy, but why is the Corolla so sparsely equipped? Despite the hefty price premium, there’s no anti-lock brakes or airbags on this car. Why?
The answer to that question will also reveal why the Corolla failed to win any of our Car Of The Year awards in December,last year.
So, while my heart is still with the Corolla, the head votes for the Elantra. And since comparison tests must be decided on the basis of cold logic, and not emotion, the Elantra is the shock winner here. The Korean car is a true value-for-money deal – it’s better equipped than the Jap car, rides better and has a significant price advantage. Its engine is not quite as energetic, but in the real world, on the road, there’ll be very little between the two. And in tricky weather and road conditions, the Elantra, with anti-lock brakes and traction control, may well prove to be the safer of the two. Toyota have a worldwide reputation for longevity and supreme reliability, but we haven’t ever had any serious problems with our test Hyundais either. The Koreans have been playing catch-up for a long time. This time around, they’ve not only caught up with, but also passed the Japanese competition, so there.
[This test was conducted in a controlled environment, by professional drivers. Don’t replicate it on your neighbourhood streets.]
The PET is not meant to be a race. The PET circuit was designed to test and evaluate all aspects of the Corolla and the Elantra. To begin with,drivers were required to accelerate hard from the start-finish line, execute a lane change manoeuvre (at whatever speeds they were comfortable with), and come to a complete halt (brake as late as possible) before executing the U-turn which leads to the slalom section. To test tyre performance,drivers had to try and go through the slalom at a steady 50 kph before taking the second U-turn, followed by a 360-degree turn (acting as a skidpad simulator) and across the start-finish line. The total distance was 1 km, and parameters evaluated were acceleration, steering, braking,stability, and tyre performance. Quickest Elantra time was set by Shumi, at 52.62 seconds. Quickest Corolla time was Sameer’s, at 53.66 seconds.